New York Ex. Rel. Bryant v. Zimmerman, 278 U.S. 63 (1928)

General principles governing freedom of association in the United States are implied from express guarantees of free speech and assembly, and rights to petition the government for redress of grievances that are found in the First Amendment. Vigorous discussion of the nature and scope of those principles was prompted by Justice Brandeis’s rejection of the majority’s reasoning in Whitney v. California (1927).

In Bryant, decided one year later, members of the Ku Klux Klan challenged the constitutionality of a New York statute requiring all oath-bound organizations exceeding twenty members to annually register a list of officers and roster of members with the secretary of state. The Klan resisted the mandate to provide a list of its rank-and-file members. The New York Court of Appeals upheld the law as a valid regulation finding that ‘‘the legislature may take notice of the potentiality of evil in secret societies and may regulate them reasonably.’’ The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed, finding that there was a ‘‘manifest tendency to make the secrecy surrounding its purposes and membership a cloak for acts and conduct inimical to personal rights in public welfare...’’

Thirty years later, in NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson (1958), state officials also demanded an organization’s membership list. Procedurally, both cases came before the Court upon challenge to a state government’s demand for a complete list of the organization’s members. In NAACP, the Court affirmed its earlier recognition of a state’s interest in remaining generally apprised of group activities within its jurisdiction. However, the Court was careful to distinguish the relevant facts surrounding the two cases. Accordingly, those distinctions produced entirely different outcomes. The line drawn by the Court establishes the government’s obligation to maintain public confidence in the unbiased performance of official duties while exercising state police powers, particularly in the areas of public safety and law enforcement.

These landmark cases dealt with membership lists as they related to a state government’s attempts at regulation and involvement with Klan activity, respectively. The Court in Bryant noted that the New York legislature had uncontroverted evidence that:

The Klan exacted of its members an oath to shield and preserve white supremacy ... [declaring] any person actively imposing its principles to be a dangerous ingredient in the body politic ... and an enemy to the weal of our national commonwealth; that it was conducting a crusade against Catholics, Jews and Negroes and stimulating hurtful religious and race prejudices, that it was striving for political power and assuming a sort of guardianship over the administration of local, state and national affairs and that at times it was taking into its own hands the punishment, of what some of its members conceived to be crimes.

Justice Harlan, writing for a unanimous Court in NAACP v. Alabama, took judicial notice of the need to protect members of the plaintiffs’ civil rights organization. The Court denied Alabama’s authority to compel production of the names and address of the NAACP’s members, based on a finding that its production order was the result of a government conspiracy with private actors, such as the Klan, to violate the plaintiffs’ civil and human rights.

The Bryant Court declared, and the Court in NAACP confirmed, that the right of membership in an association, like most other personal rights must yield to the rightful exertion of police power: ‘‘There can be no doubt that under that power, the state may prescribe any reasonable regulation calculated to confine [an organization’s] purposes and activities within limits which are consistent with the rights of others and the public welfare.’’

ROBIN D. BARNES

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449 (1958)
  • Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927)

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